Peter Mehlman’s first novel, It Won’t Always Be This Great, is not the post-Gatsby, Great American Novel that we’ve all been waiting for — the story that captures the hopes, the fears, the rhythms and resentments of a younger generation. But it is something almost as noteworthy: the Great American Jewish Novel.
Specifically, the Great American Jewish Novel of the Early 21st Century, comedy division.
As the nameless narrator tells his story to a college pal lying comatose in a hospital bed, there are clear echoes of Catcher in the Rye and the inspired nothingness of Seinfeld. Throw in some catch-me-if-you-can themes from one of the greatest Russian novels — Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment — and basketball references with echoes of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, and this jokey dark comedy can claim serious literary inspiration.
Mehlman wrote the first freelance episode produced for Seinfeld — “The Apartment,” in which Jerry invites Elaine to move in, and then regrets it — and became such a valuable part of TV’s greatest modern comedy that, by the end of his six-year run, he was co-executive producer.
The overlap between his TV work and his new novel will be clear to any dedicated Seinfeld fan. Both zealous Jews and equally zealous anti-Semites come in for frequent mocking. There’s also the familiar disparagement of shopworn phrases such as “You know the drill” and “It is what it is,” the latter in a putdown that combines two other Seinfeld tics: famous Jews in history and the mandate that all northeastern Jews eventually move to Florida retirement communities. “That trash phrase has become the unimpeachable get-out-of-jail-free card for any offense you can name,” the narrator complains. “If that phrase was around in 1953, the Rosenbergs would be living happily in Boca right now.”
While there’s no talk of a contest or being master of your domain, in a nod to Philip Roth, there are repeated references to the narrator’s masturbation habits. He reveals that, whenever necessary, he’s still able to recall a long-ago teenage glimpse of Jenji McKenna’s nipple: “That moment is so vivid, I’ve been doing my business to Jenji, and only Jenji, ever since. Imagine: I’m a monogamous masturbator.”
The J.D. Salinger connection also pops up again and again, as when the narrator talks about his beloved, precocious daughter, Esme. Not only does her name evoke one of Salinger’s best and best-known short stories — “For Esme, With Love and Squalor” — but there are passages strikingly similar to those in which Holden talks about his beloved, precocious little sister, Phoebe: “Esme once asked me, ‘If you don’t have enough money to stay in the Best Western, is there a Second Best Western?’ I think she was 8 at the time. Kid’s a genius.”
The narrative, such as it is, serves mainly as a platform for Mehlman to express his cynical, jokey point of view on life, love, money, aging, sex, suburbia, crime, media, dysfunctional families and a thousand other hot topics.
It begins with a relatively simple incident and quickly spirals downward from there. Imagine the teenage Holden Caulfield all grown up, converted to Judaism and now a successful, wealthy podiatrist living on Long Island with a beautiful, witty wife and two wonderful kids. At the advanced age of 51, he endangers his wonderful world with an impulsive act: While walking home in the subzero wind chill of a Friday night, he stumbles on a bottle of kosher horseradish, badly sprains his ankle and, in a rage, mindlessly hurls the bottle through the window of a popular store selling slutty tween fashions.
This isolated, antisocial impulse turns his life upside down, bringing waves of fear that he will be caught, crooked cops, the FBI and a newspaper reporter whom he uses to manipulate the story while attempting to evade suspicion.
Mehlman, 58 and a Santa Monica resident, excels in creating characters and bringing them to believable life. His scenes of a cozy family life and a couple still in love after many years all ring true, even though he’s single and childless.
Of course, he’s also presumably never chucked a rock through the window of Forever 21. But he has imagined the consequences with dread and humor. And isn’t that what great novelists do?
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Editor's note: This review was changed after publication to correct the name of Mehlman's novel. We regret the error.